Using leftovers — or rather, NOT using leftovers — used to be a weakness of mine. A lot of things got either thrown out, composted, or run down the disposal and I shudder to think what that would equate to in dollars over the course of my entire life. Having committed to this new more frugal, and self-sufficient lifestyle, a lot of that waste had to be conquered and stopped. It was a slow process to identify the areas in our home that needed improvement in the waste department, but leftovers was a probably one of the most difficult ones. This is because food is perishable and you only have so much time before you have no choice but to toss something.
The changes I made to reduce food waste included storing dry goods in canning jars. By “dry goods,” I mean everything from beans and rice, to cereal, to croutons, to nuts and beyond. This technique keeps food fresh MUCH longer and makes buying in bulk make sense even for a small family. You can read more about how to use canning jars for dry storage right here.
Another thing I implemented was careful rotation of dated goods. Granted, I take the dates appearing on products with a grain of salt — sometimes they are right on and a product does go bad, but that is not necessarily the case with everything. As an example, since I started making most of our bread from scratch, I had a few lone boxes of Jiffy Cornbread mix that were forgotten for a long time. The date on them had expired a good six months before I noticed. So, I thought . . . “Well, I don’t want to just waste it, so let’s just get it used up.” I decided to make one for dinner that night. Ugh. It was AWFUL. It came out flat, dry, and hard — much like cardboard. We could not eat it. I committed to improve rotation practices and use up things in order of their expiration dates rather than my moods.
Next was the dreaded refrigerator, leftovers in particular. I am pretty good about finishing off “last night’s dinner” for lunch most of the time, but that does not always work out. I grew up in a family of four and therefore, I learned to cook for four. When my son was a teen, he could easily eat seconds almost every night. It was hard to relearn how to cook in smaller portions when it became just me and Eddie. It was even harder back when I was still fairly dependent on convenience foods as they tend to come in a box and you get the amount you get … usually enough for three or four — not two. But that got easier when I started buying staples and making the recipes myself. I could more easily cut the quantity in half if I started with raw, real ingredients rather than a pre-portioned box.
The Five New Rules for Using Leftovers became:
- Make less to begin with by cooking with staples from scratch as much as possible and customizing to feed just two. (Lots of other benefits to that too!)
- Before deciding on a meal plan for the day, look in the fridge and see what needs used up. Plan the next meal around that. This is great for mac & cheese, mashed potatoes and that little dab of carrots. Eddie & I often have different veggies on our plates when it is time to use up a dab of this (for me) and a dab of that (for him).
- Forgive yourself when you just cannot work it into the next meal, but be sure to freeze it before it “turns.” For more information on how long certain foods stay good without freezing, check here. When freezing, repackage if needed to prevent freezer burn and clearly label & date the container. Try to keep all frozen leftovers on the same shelf together so they don’t get mixed up with other frozen foods and shoved to the back. Have a spot just for leftovers and when choosing the next meal . . . LOOK THERE first!
- Twice a month, check the freezer for leftovers from the past and get creative with them. Throw veggies into a soup, stock/broth, or casserole. Things like onion skins, broccoli stalks, carrot ends & celery leaves (things you might normally compost/throw out) add flavor, richness, & nutrition to a good broth (just strain it out when the broth is done)! Use mashed potatoes in a bread recipe or in a pot of soup or a gravy as a thickener. Here are a few of my favorite recipes, all of which call for leftovers.
- Remember to extend proper rotation practices to the freezer, not just the cupboards & fridge.
I recently asked our readers what tips they had for using up leftovers and wow, let me tell you . . . collective wisdom is an amazing thing! Here are some of their best tips! Be sure to add yours in the Comments below!
From Julie L — “Leftover pancakes or french toast can be frozen for weekday breakfasts! Just pop in the toaster & you’ve got a quick breakfast for those hectic mornings.”
Robbyn VH — “Leftover pancakes make awesome open-faced sandwiches.”
Kathy N — “I have always been good at eating leftovers for breakfast. Lol.”
Edie D — “Not particularly a leftover idea but did you know French toast is delicious made with fruit juice? If you are out of milk you can use fruit juice instead.”
Salads & Condiments
Sietske VS — “Leftover pickle juice or even better, leftover pickled jalapeno juice, mixed with a little mustard and mayo makes great dressing for potato salad.”
Robbyn VH — “I use pickle juice to flavor my potatoes for potato salad. I let them soak a little while I chop up the other ingredients, then dress as usual with a mayo-based dressing.”
Meg F — “Leftover pickle juice – put some Lil Smokies in the jar with some red pepper flakes & previously pickled hot peppers to make pickled sausage. Or you can put boiled eggs in the jar for pickled eggs.”
Angel F — “Leftover steak can be cut up and added to a salad for a little extra something with balsamic vinaigrette.”
Erica M — “Leftover bread ends make great croutons! I’ve got a post about that right here: How to Make Croutons from Bread Scraps.”
Soups & Sides
Connie S — “Starting with leftover mashed potatoes, I add sour cream, cheese, bacon bits (anything you would put on a baked potato) and put in a casserole dish and bake. It’s just like twice baked potatoes. You can use instant potatoes. I also add sour cream to my instant potatoes when making them. It makes them taste more like fresh potatoes.”
Megan M — “Leftover pickle juice can be added to a vegetable or chicken stock to make dill pickle soup! It’s basically a potato soup with the added crunch and zing of pickles….delish!”
Sue L — “Leftover chili can be added to soup beans to make a nice warm pot of chili beans for a cold winter night.”
Sharon C — “I used 2 c. leftover rice (spiced up), add two chopped onions and cooked chicken breast. Mix. Put 2-3 tbsp on 8″ flour tortilla and add asedero or shredded cheese of choice. Cover with foil and warm in the oven. Serve with julienned lettuce and minced tomato for the perfect fast food taco!”
Sietske VS — “Leftover rice can be frozen. I used a 1/2 cup packed rice, empty onto cookie sheet, repeat. Freeze on the cookie sheet, then place into a bag. Handy for quick meals. Or fry leftover rice with bits of leftover veggies, meats and perhaps an egg or two. This is especially good if you have some bacon drippings to fry it in. Make a quick peanut sauce to go with it: Peanut butter, warm water, soy sauce, some brown sugar and a pinch of chili flakes and boil until thickened.”
Tracy Q — “Leftover rice is great for making quick fried rice. You can clean out your scraps of veggies as well. Just use some soy sauce and chicken broth, put your leftover rice and scramble up some eggs to throw in (my family’s favorite part of fried rice). Yum! You can also throw in leftover meat to make it more filling.”
Lunches & Dinners
Dee M — “All of my left over meat, rice and veggies end up in stir fry, casseroles, mixed with pasta or in soup. As my grandmother said ‘Waste not, want not.'”
Susan R — “Leftover meat, spaghetti sauce (homemade) mixed with rinsed, drained organic black beans, fresh grated cheddar (or pepper jack). Stuff the mixture into pre-cooked organic spaghetti squash half (or acorn or butternut), and top with more cheese. Bake at 350° for 25 – 35 min or until cheese is melted and stuffing is bubbly.”
Stephenie H — “I turn leftover meat into soup or pot pies. Sometimes I turn pot roast into beef stew, but last time, I cut the meat in chunks along with the leftover veggies, carrots, onion, potatoes added cream soup (this time I used cambells beefy mushroom), threw it in a pan and covered it with a bisquick crust that I put shredded cheese in.”
Douglas (Joy) M — “Thanksgiving leftovers make great thanksgiving pizza. Use your dough of choice. (I use a boboli.) Spread on mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Add turkey chunks, gravy, and cheese. Reheat in the oven. So good.”
Douglas (Joy) M — “Make spaghetti and garlic bread. Fry leftover scetti with butter on med heat till caramelized. Reheat garlic bread. Add cheese and put fried scetti on the bread. Best sandwich left over ever!!”
Candice S — “I like turning leftover mashed potatoes into potato and cheese pierogies, so yummy!”
Beverly C — “Leftover chicken can be used for many things. One of my favorites is to take canned rolls or homemade pastry crust and line muffin cups with it, put your chicken, cheese, veggies, whatever you like in them, bake, and you have individual chicken pies.”
Dinners with a Mexican Flare
Sietske VS — “I make mini tamale pies. Two cups broth, 1 1/2 cups masa/corn flour, pinch of baking soda, salt/pepper/onion powder/garlic powder to taste. Mix up, let it sit for a minute to thicken up, then push into muffin tins (makes about 18). Bake for 10 minutes at 375F, fill with leftovers, bakes another 10-15 minutes. Filling ideas: beef, peppers, onions, mushrooms, cream cheese and cheddar for phili pies. Taco meat, peppers, onions, salsa and shredded cheese for taco pies. Pizza toppings with tomato sauce and shredded cheese for mini deep dish pizzas. My husband takes the phili-cheese ones in his lunch box.”
Robbyn VH — “Use V8 juice in your taco soup along with your leftover corn, broken or leftover pasta, and any ground meat, including sausage.”
Tracy Q — “Frittatas are a great way to use up leftovers. You can use raw leftover veggies or cooked meats and veggies, cheeses, etc. There is a good template for how to make a frittata that is basic and you can decide what to put into it. This is a wonderful, cost effective, healthy way to use up leftovers, even bits of them, which is sometimes difficult. Try This Quick and Delicious Frittata Recipe.”
Tracy Q — “I make quesadillas with leftovers all the time. You can customize quesadillas easily with leftover chicken or meat, cheese, veggies, refried beans, even rice with some seasoning. Also, turn leftover steak or chicken into fajitas. You just heat it up with some taco seasoning, then heat up tortillas, and cook up onions and peppers. Serve with sour cream and lettuce or whatever you like on fajitas.”
Molly M — “Freeze coffee into ice cubes, then transfer to a freezer bag, melt a few into chocolate desserts that require liquid, for depth of flavor, or toss into the blender for an iced coffee drink.”
Diane F — “Pickle juice in potato or macaroni salad. Leftover mashed potatoes turned into twice baked potatoes. Leftover roasted chicken turned into chicken patties or chicken soup. Leftover pot roast, add mushrooms to make spatzele. To name just a few.”
Tina R — “You can use pickle juice in your biscuit batter if you don’t have buttermilk. Just use whole milk and a little dill pickle juice to achieve the buttermilk flavor.
Renee B — “For leftover rice – sauté an onion in a good bit of butter. Add the rice and a chopped up hardboiled egg or two. If it is a little dry, add more butter.”
Rich B — “Make egg salad sandwich with leftover salsa from your party it give the lunch a little bite.”
Lauren D — “I use leftover chicken for Alfredo, chicken noodle soup, and in a cassarole with stuffing and cream of chicken soup.”
Lee R — “Clean out the fridge day could result in a soup, stew, stir-fry, or tacos.”
Please SHARE YOUR TIPS for Using Leftovers below!